The Ghost of Pinehurst Past
I was driving home after speaking to a group of collegiate golfers from Pennsylvania the other night when I glanced across the seat and there sat the ghost of Richard Tufts, riding shotgun under a bright spring moon.
Macbeth had his Banquo; I have my Richard Tufts.
Every year about this time, his restless ghost shows up just to rattle my cage.
"Did you hear?" Tufts asked pleasantly. "They say Tiger Woods is going to come back at the Masters. What do you make of that?"
"Well," I said, remembering how touchy the sage of Pinehurst can be on certain topics, "I heard a cute anchor gal on CNN this morning say the golf world desperately needs him. So it must be true. She said golf will probably die if Tiger doesn't come back soon."
"Horse wallop," declared my spectral visitor. "Golf's been around 400 years, survived world wars and orange golf balls. I doubt it's going to curl up and die if Tiger Woods never returns to form. Maybe the PGA Tour will die, though - or at least wise up and change the way it does its business. They're killing the game."
"What do you mean?" I asked the Author of "The Amateur Creed."
"If you recall, Junior, I predicted 50 years ago that too much money and corporate influence would ruin the professional game and ultimately hurt the growth of the game. Incidentally, Cliff Roberts said exactly the same thing. That's why the Masters has no visible corporate sponsor, only a membership that treats the fans of the game with the respect they deserve. At most golf tournaments these days, unfortunately, it's the exact opposite. Players get the white-glove treatment. Fans are pretty much irrelevant. Who needs paying customers with all that lovely corporate dough?"
"Guess that explains why you booted the pros out of Pinehurst when they demanded more money at the North and South Open. People thought you were crazy."
"A decent purse and free rooms and meals at the Carolina - not to mention the pleasure of playing in Pinehurst - simply weren't enough. They even got free French mineral water and flowers for their wives, for goodness sake. But they wanted more and more purse money. Eventually golf became far more about the money than the game. At that point, fans wised up and found better things to do with their Sunday afternoons."
'Sad State of Affairs'
Before I could get a word in edgewise, the Patron Saint of Amateur Golf explained that over the 30 years between 1960 and 1990, the popularity of golf soared - participation quadrupled, in fact.
Since about 1997, however, about the time Tiger entered the pro circuit cursing and spitting and fist-pumping his way to major star status, and corporate sponsorship exploded on tour, public participation has actually contracted by almost a quarter. Network TV ratings have steadily trended downward. A golf course a day is closing in America. These days, more people leave than enter the game.
"It's a sad state of affairs," grumbled the Ghost of Pinehurst Past. "You'd never see Bob Jones or Jack Nicklaus or Tom Watson behave the way Tiger did - on or off the course. They have too much respect for the game and the people who love to play and watch it. They made golf interesting because fans knew who they actually were. They were accessible to fans, to other players, certainly to the press. Look at Arnie Palmer - he became a national hero doing just that!
"Who knows who Tiger Woods really is? The only intimate glimpse we've had into his life is appalling. I heard Hogan remark at the club that if he doesn't shape up soon, Tiger's only legacy will be a generation of pushy stage moms and dads who want their little kid to grow up and be just like him - wealthy, spoiled and controlled by his corporate masters. Nobody controlled Ben Hogan."
"What club is that?" I wondered, hoping to lighten up the conversation a wee bit. I also wondered if I would have the ghost of Dick Tufts riding shotgun all the way home to Southern Pines. We were just approaching the second fairway at No. 2.
"Pearly Gates Golf Club," he explained, gazing out at the fairway in the moonlight. I got the impression he might suddenly be homesick for old Pinehurst, not to mention the way golf used to be. Weren't we all?
"So there is golf in heaven after all?" I politely asked.
"Oh, absolutely," he said. "Wonderful golf. Courses to die for. Hogan absolutely lives on the practice range at Pearly Gates. Herb Wind and I have lunch with Byron Nelson almost every day, reliving old times over excellent split-pea soup. They do a splendid noon buffet, too. Reminds me of the Carolina Dining Room in the old days. The other place has some decent golf, too, mind you, of course - just six-hour rounds and ringing cell phones. They make you pay for range balls, too."
"Where you go, son, if shaving your score or sandbagging your handicap becomes more lifestyle than habit."
Still Hope for Tiger?
I thought about the fine young men from tiny Lackawanna College that I'd dined with that evening. They were a terrific bunch of kids, exactly the kind of young men Richard Tufts loved to bring to Pinehurst. They gave me hope for the game's bright future, maybe even a grassroots rebirth of the game.
Thinking of them, I said, "Surely, Mr. Tufts, you're not suggesting every young player on the tour today is spoiled and indifferent to the values that made the game so popular..."
"Oh, no. There are plenty of fine young players coming up. I even think there's still hope for Tiger Woods - I mean, Americans love a second chance. He's a tremendous talent. I hope he makes a full recovery. But let Tiger spit, curse or toss his clubs just once and I think the public will turn on him faster than you can say Johnny Edwards."
Before I could respond, he added, "The upside of this unfortunate business is that we may eventually realize that too much money does indeed destroy the human spirit and get back to what golf has always been - a game, not just a promising business opportunity."
I hated to tell the Sage of Pinehurst that I thought he might just be whistling past the graveyard on this one. Tiger's return to the Masters is being flogged as the most anticipated sports return since Hogan's return in '50.
"Isn't that the problem with all professional sports today?" I put to the Father of Amateurism. "Just as you once predicted, they're more profession than sport?"
"Sadly true, " he rumbled, shaking his head. "To have sports you have to have sportsmen. Look at what a disgrace baseball has become, for instance, with one cheating all-star after another testifying before Congress. I understand they may soon start drug testing in Little League. "
I asked him what he made of the breaking news this week that among the teams vying for the NCAA basketball championship, more than a third had graduation rates under 60 percent - and 12 of the top teams were less than 40 percent. Among African-American players, the graduation rate was a shocking 20 percent. College basketball was now little more than pre-season training camp for the National Basketball Association. The concept of a scholar-athlete had never been so laughable.
"Simply proves my point," grumbled the incorrigible spirit. "Complete March Madness. I'm glad I've moved on to greener fairways."
"By the way, sir," I felt obliged to point out to him, "that is a trademarked name fully licensed and owned by the NCAA. If you use it in any unauthorized commercial context, Mr. Tufts, you can expect lawyers to come knocking on your door. They charge handsomely for March Madness."
"That's OK," Richard Tufts said with a ghostly smile. "They'll have to try and serve the suit up there - if you know what I mean. There's a sign on the gate that explicit states, 'No Lawyers Allowed.'" He suddenly added, "Hey, son. Do me a favor and pull over here. I'd like to walk a bit of the old turf before I head back. Brings back fine memories."
The Ghost of Pinehurst Past got out, and I rolled the window down to say goodbye until next year about this time. It was a gorgeous spring night, and I thanked Richard Tufts for giving me something extra to think about on the eve of Tiger's return and at the start of another golf season.
He waved and started walking off, disappearing before my eyes.
"Please give my best to Herb Wind, Byron Nelson and Mr. Hogan," I called after him. "They're one reason I took up playing golf!"
"Will do," he answered over his shoulder. "Hope you actually get out and play more golf this year, son. Golf keeps a fellow young and alive, you know."
"Yes, sir. One more thing - what ever happened to orange golf balls?"
"They went to the other place."
Jim Dodson, is The Pilot's Sunday essayist and editor of PineStraw magazine, can be reached by e-mail at jasdodsn@ thepilot.com.
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